Written by Ris Solomon
Art by Nikki Sztolc
When I was sixteen, I decided I was going to lose my virginity.
I had done other stuff before, but I’d never had real sex. Since my eight-grade health class, I had been taught that penetration was what really counted. All this other stuff had been fun, but I wanted the real deal. I wanted to lose my virginity –officially. Months of meticulous planning led up to the big moment; I started birth control, had a loving boyfriend, and found an afternoon where we would be home alone. That was the day I learned about a new, not-so-exciting V-word. Vaginismus.
Vaginismus is defined as involuntary spasm/contraction/reflex of the muscles surrounding the entrance to the vagina, making penetration impossible and/or painful, which causes personal and/or relationship distress. (Sexual Health Australia, https://www.sexualhealthaustralia.com.au/vaginismus.html).
I was beyond crushed. A shameful trip to the SHINE clinic had me diagnosed and set up with a time-consuming treatment plan. Anyone who watched Sex Education on Netflix may recall a glimpse into the exercises and equipment commonly used to treat vaginismus. What Sex Education failed to portray was the frustration, the pain and the emotional turmoil that I experienced during my treatment process. It was like being on my period during ninth-grade swimming carnival all over again, praying for that tampon to just get up there already so I could swim my race.
At high school sleepovers with my friends, I always made up excuses when we talked about our sex lives. I would tell them ‘oh, we’re just never home alone’ or ‘we’re waiting because we want it to be special.’ When I turned 17, the truth slipped out. The news spread from person-to-person until every friend I had knew about my broken vagina. At first, I was optimistic, explaining my treatment plan to those close to me and excitedly discussing the future with my boyfriend. Although the treatment process was painstakingly slow, I began to make steady progress.
This was the first real step in my treatment. Acceptance.
I kept my head up high despite the emotional lashings I received from those around me. I would smile through the pain of people discussing my body behind my back (and sometimes, right in front of my face). I would laugh my way through the constant, subtle put-downs from my closest of friends. Things grew harder as more time passed and I made less progress. Slowly, I became excluded from the giggly sleepover-sex-talks I loved as a teenager. The loneliness grew deep.
It wasn’t just me who felt the sting. I can still recall nights I witnessed my virgin boyfriend being laughed at and teased while our friends assumed I was out of earshot. The shame quickly became too much. My partner had never once pushed me or complained. Despite his supportive nature, asking for help felt unbearable. I decided to shoulder the burden on my own.
Soon, I completely halted my treatment plan. The once beautiful, intimate moments of everything else with my boyfriend became less beautiful… less intimate. More painful. Less frequent. We began to avoid the topic of sex. The feeling of being broken was so painful that my own mind stopped acknowledging it. For months at a time it was like I just forgot. I fell out of contact with those helping me at the SHINE clinic. My self-esteem crumbled. I began to hyper-feminise and hyper-sexualise. I was trying to compensate for my perceived failure. I had failed myself. I had failed my womanhood. I had failed my boyfriend. I knew it was true the day I heard him announce his “body-count” was zero. Three years into our relationship. At age 18, we separated. While he swore the breakup had nothing to do with my vaginismus, I still wonder sometimes if things would have been different without it.
I was seeing a therapist at the time, and eventually I built up the courage to talk about my diagnosis. It was like opening a valve. Suddenly, I was conscious of my situation. No more shoving it down. No more avoiding it. I talked about my guilt and pain and utter exhaustion. I talked about my failure to recover and the fear of disconnection. I doubted talking about it would help when I walked in, but I left the office that day with a new sense of clarity. Suddenly, I was no longer numb to my experience. I cried and I laughed, and I cried some more. Forget the exercises and the equipment. This was the first real step in my treatment. Acceptance.
I never found any stories about vaginismus with a happy ending–to be honest. I have never found more than a couple of stories to begin with. I cannot spin you a great tale of how I overcame my condition and lived happily ever after yet, but I have given you the start of one. After wasting years on anger, I now know how to appreciate what my experience taught (and continues to teach) me. I thought about publishing this article anonymously, but I think it would defeat the purpose. I am no longer ashamed of my body, and I want you to know that you don’t have to be either.
As a bisexual, I often wonder if people would look at me the same way if I had been dating a woman instead. I know they wouldn’t still call me a virgin. That V-word my teenage-self held in such high regard lost its prestige. Virginity became nothing more than another heteronormative category I just cannot fit into. I find it hard to believe the intimate moments I have loved and enjoyed with a partner could be disregarded as less important than simple penetration. Realisations like these led me to remove the word “virginity” from my vocabulary altogether.
During my sex education, vaginismus was never mentioned. Thanks to a heavy stigma, the percentage of people who share the condition is unknown. If you have struggled or continue to struggle today with vaginismus or similar conditions, my inbox is open. If you need a friend to support you, or just an ear to listen once, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I am certain vaginismus is only one of many conditions swept under the rug. I encourage you to be shameless in the ownership of your body. Offer support compassionately and ask for it bravely. We can get rid of the stigma, one voice at a time.
You can contact Ris Solomon at email@example.com